Per Caritatem

One in ChristAs I stated in the previous post, the current piece deals with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and both were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.

***

As is well-known, St. Paul, in his very short letter to Philemon,[1] devotes significant space to the master/slave relationship. Some scholars have concluded that in his letter to Philemon St. Paul’s position on slavery has changed and changed for the better in comparison to his exhortations to slaves in 1 Cor 7.[2] But has he altered his view in any substantive way?   Perhaps not, if we keep firmly before us the fact the specific appeals regarding the recently converted Onesimus are directed at Philemon, St. Paul’s friend and co-laborer in Christ (Plm 1). In contrast, there is no indication that the slaves addressed in 1 Corinthians had exclusively Christian masters.  Rather, it is more plausible to suggest that at least some, and perhaps even most slaves whom St. Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians, had non-Christian masters.[3] In Philemon, then, what we have is an impassioned plea to a mature Christian leader to enact in this world the kind of relationships that will characterize the age to come.

As Brown observes, “[t]he letter, designed to persuade, is astute, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated.”[4] Apparently, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had been converted by St. Paul during the latter’s imprisonment (Phlm 9-10).  St. Paul addresses Philemon as a Christian brother and one whose life and works had been a great source of encouragement to him (Phlm 4-7).  Now that Onesimus has been brought into union with the living Christ, St. Paul challenges Philemon to recognize Onesimus’s new status in Christ, not simply in a “spiritual” inner sense, but καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ (“both in the flesh and in the Lord,” Plm 16, NRSV).  In other words, pace Nietzsche’s complaint that Christianity has an exclusively “other-worldly-world” focus, new life in Christ necessarily involves socio-political ramifications.  Thus, St. Paul, in a pastoral and caring manner, encourages his fellow brother in Christ, Philemon, to embody this Gospel in his relationship with Onesimus.  Consider, for example, the strong emotional language Paul employs to urge Philemon to action, “I am appealing to you for my child [in the Lord], Onesimus” (v. 10, NRSV); “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17, italics added, NRSV); “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21, italics added, NRSV).  Acknowledging the strong rhetorical flavor of this letter, we may reasonably conclude that St. Paul expected Philemon to manumit Onesimus—to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Plm 16, NRSV).[5] Even if one were to concede that St. Paul to some degree participated in the cultural blindness of his day by not directly speaking against slavery as an institution (and in part due to his strong apocalyptic convictions), nonetheless, he does call the Christian community to a different standard, as it were, to kingdom values.

Many scholars, of course, are quick to point out that slaves were the economic backbone of Roman society.  For instance, Bartchy writes,

[i]n such an economic context it was virtually impossible for anyone to conceive of abolishing slavery as a legal-economic institution.  To have turned all the slaves into free day laborers would have been to create an economy in which those at the bottom would have suffered even more insecurity and potential poverty than before.[6]

Though this is no doubt true historically speaking, arguments along these lines have been employed (and sadly enough by Christians) to justify slavery as an institution.[7] As I shall contend in the concluding section, Christians ought to see slavery[8] as a consequence of the fall and, hence, as completely un-natural and inconsistent with God’s ideal for human beings and with human ontology (viz. as free beings).   Bartchy goes on to say that neither Jesus (nor the Twelve) nor St. Paul owned slaves.  By example of their own lives, both Jesus and the pioneers of early Christianity issued a challenge to the “early Christians to conceive of themselves as living already among themselves in an alternative social-legal environment.”[9] Through God’s activity of calling into being these “alternative households,” that is, Christian communities in which the slave/master relationship is relativized and slavery to Christ (the ultimate suffering, foot-washing Servant) is the only form of servitude that will continue into the eschaton, we see the Gospel and St. Paul’s exhortations to kingdom living issuing a threat to the economic structure of Roman society.[10]

Notes


[1] With Sampley and Witherington, I conclude that 1 Corinthians was composed in Ephesus in the late fall or early winter 53-54 AD. Cf.  Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 777.  Sampley presents his case for this early dating based on Paul’s travel information given in 1 Cor 16:5-9.   In this passage, Paul announces his plan to visit Corinth after a stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the second day of the Passover celebration (p. 776).  This has led some scholars to postulate that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians “in late fall or winter, leaving time for the pre-Pentecost, remaining work in Ephesus to which Paul alludes by the metaphor of the ‘wide door’ opened him there (1 Cor 16:9)” (p. 776).  The question then becomes, which late fall or winter?  According to Sampley, if one gives credence to the Acts 18 account of Paul’s missionary activity (vs. 22-23), coupled with the time needed to secure his mission in Ephesus, one may posit an early date for 1 Corinthians, ca. late fall or winter 53-54 AD (pp. 776-77).  Witherington also opts for an early dating (53-54 AD) of 1 Corinthians, pointing to the evidence of the inscription found at Delphi mentioning Gallio’s name, which corroborates with the Acts 18 account and thus allows us to establish a date for Gallio’s service in Corinth (50-51 or 51-52 AD) (see, Conflict and Community in Corinth, pp. 71-73).   With Brown, I hold that Philemon was also composed in Ephesus in 56 AD, approximately two to three years after 1 Corinthians. See, Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 507-8.  Felder opts for Rome as the place of composition and a later date as well (ca. 61 AD).  If Felder is correct, my overall argument is not diminished and perhaps even strengthened.  See, Felder, “The Letter to Philemon,” p. 884.

[2] Cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 506-7.

[3] Witherington concurs. Cf. Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 183.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 505.

[5] As Lewis highlights, it is curious that Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner of Christ,” rather than a “slave of Christ” (Phil 1:1) or a “slave” and “apostle” of Christ (Rom 1:1) (Lewis, “The Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” pp. 240-41).  In this letter, Paul is clearly appealing to Philemon as a friend and fellow brother; thus, he refrains from imposing apostolic authority.  Perhaps he avoids the title “slave of Christ,” because his aim is to persuade Philemon to manumit Onesimus and to en-flesh the eschatological reality of Christian relationships that characterize the next aeon in the present aeon.

[6] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[7] Cf. Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, p. 156, footnote 3.

[8] That is, human ownership of other human beings in which those owned are considered as “things” and property of their masters.

[9] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[10] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.  Witherington has similar comments, cf. e.g., Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 185.

Comments are closed.